It was a White House briefing like no other.
President Donald Trump turned a White House briefing on the coronavirus late Monday into a fervent defense of his actions to respond to the deadly pandemic and an attack on reporters who posed skeptical questions.
"You know you're a fake, your whole network," the president snapped at Paula Reid, a White House correspondent from CBS, not responding directly to her questions about whether his administration had squandered time to prepare hospitals and ramp up testing for COVID-19. A chyron on CNN, which has been tough on fact-checking the president, read: "Trump melts down in angry response to reports he ignored virus warnings."
The extraordinary performance came amid signs of a looming showdown between the White House and some of the nation's governors about when it will be safe to reopen business and schools.
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"The president of the United States calls the shots," Trump said, although legal experts say the power to lift orders that have shut down most states rests with the governors who imposed them.
When reporters followed up with more questions, he claimed unqualified power to act, although he predicted he would be able to work with the governors.
"When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total," he said.
It is rare for the White House briefing room to be used by a president for such a fervent defense of his own actions and recounting of his grievances, especially while a national crisis is still unfolding. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or during the Iranian hostage crisis, for instance, then-presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter generally offered reassurance and made appeals for national unity.
The combative exchanges Monday came in the wake of stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press and USA TODAY that recounted missed opportunities and slow responses by the Trump administration that probably increased the death toll from COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health on Sunday said in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that imposing mitigation measures earlier "obviously" would have saved lives.
Early in the briefing, Trump recognized Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious diseases, who came to the podium to say he had been responding to a hypothetical question. Fauci said that on the two occasions he met with the president to urge mitigation steps, the president agreed. Questions about Fauci's tenure were raised when Trump shared a tweet that included the hashtag #FireFauci.
Fauci flashed a rare look of anger at a reporter who asked if he was speaking voluntarily. "Everything I do is voluntary," he replied. "Don't even imply that."
Even as the briefing was still going on, Trump's reelection campaign posted on social media video of the supportive comments Fauci had made. "Dr. Fauci says President @realDonldTrump did NOT delay at all when the recommendation was made to put in place mitigation," it said in a tweet.
Trump's tone through the briefing showed the concern he and his allies feel about the criticism of his leadership on the most serious crisis of his presidency. He spoke hours after his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, was endorsed by his last rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The briefing took on the air of a campaign event. Early on, the president aired a video that showed governors and other officials praising his actions as wise and timely – similar to a Trump campaign video that had already been released. Federal law generally bars presidents from mixing campaign appeals with official activities.
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When it was his turn to speak, Vice President Mike Pence seemed to be trying to lower the room's temperature. He said he felt "a sense of gratitude to the American people" for following stay-at-home orders that have contributed to a leveling off in new hospitalizations.
Trump seemed unconcerned about the heat of the moment, however.
He blasted the news media for what he called unfair accounts that had raised questions about his leadership. He said that "nobody" had asked for ventilators, an inaccurate claim.
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When challenged, he replied, "Well, look, governors should have had ventilators." At another point, he declared flatly: "Everything we did was right."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump on defense: A coronavirus briefing becomes a campaign rally